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Militants holding guns.—Reuters (File Photo).

PESHAWAR: An intense gun-battle erupted between two banned militant groups in Khyber Agency’s Tirah Valley on Friday, with at least 32 militants so far killed in the clash.

Intelligence officials said the gun-battle started late Thursday between the proscribed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and rival group Ansarul Islam (AI) in Tirah Valley’s Maidan village. The dead included 23 Ansar fighters and nine TTP militants, while several others were also injured.

Officials said the death toll was likely to increase as the fighting had not yet ended.

Speaking to a reporter, Sadat Afridi, a spokesman for the banned Ansarul Islam group, claimed that they had captured over three TTP bases in the valley’s Maidan village, and that the fight was still on for a fourth base.

Afridi said that his group has vowed to flush out TTP militants from Tirah Valley as they “carry out attacks on mosques and public places, which is against Islam.”

Afridi said that they would not allow the TTP to continue “killing innocent Muslims in the name of religion.”

Khyber is among Pakistan’s seven semi-autonomous tribal districts near the Afghan border, rife with homegrown insurgents and home to religious extremist organisations including the al Qaeda.

The remote Tirah valley holds strategic significance for militant groups. On one side, it shares a border with Afghanistan. On the other it leads to the plains of Bara, which connect the agency to the outskirts of Peshawar.

Khyber also links several agencies to each other, serving as a north-south route within Fata. The region has been long fought over by a mix of militant organisations, including the TTP, the Ansarul Islam and Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-i-Islam.

Both the Ansar and its rival Lashkar-i-Islam group – which was formed in Dec 2005 as a counter outfit to Pir Saifur Rehman’s Ansarul Islam organisation in Dec 2005 – have until now had a tacit agreement with the TTP.

But a spokesman for the TTP-allied Lashkar-i-Islam, Abdul Rashid Lashkari said that they were going to stay neutral in AI-TTP skirmishes. “We are not participating despite our affiliation to the TTP and our grudges with Ansarul Islam.”

Earlier on during the early hours of Friday morning, TTP and LI militants launched an attack on several tribes in Tirah Valley,  killing at least 18 people and wounding 30 others, said sources. The dead are reported to include women and children, with the casualty numbers expected to rise.